26 January 2012

Inconveniently Untrue Inconvenient Truths (Part 2)

Last week, Richard Vedder managed to completely infuriate me with 12 supposedly inconvenient truths about American higher education, most of which turned out to be, shall we say, exceptionally problematic. I tackled the first four last Friday (and must certainly apologize for making you wait, with baited breath I'm sure, for the next installment). Resuming where we left off . . . .
Inconvenient Truth #5 Undergraduate Students Are Often Neglected
There's no question that this is probably true at top-shelf research institutions. In grad school I saw excellent (and well-funded) researchers who couldn't teach with anything resembling competence sail through the tenure process. But saying that this is a problem with American higher education generally is like saying excessive speed is characteristic of the Italian auto industry. That Bugatti Veryon may break 260 miles per hour, even with James May behind the wheel. But a total of 300 were ever made. The run-of-the mill Fiat? Not so much. Admit it: that Alfa Romeo sitting in the garage isn't even running.

And that's where American higher education finds itself as well. Undergraduates may be low priority at Ph.D.-oriented institutions. But according to the Carnegie Foundation's classifications, those make up only 15% of primarily 4-year institutions. If the remaining institutions are giving undergraduates short shrift, who are they paying attention to? It surely isn't research: in 2000, despite making up more than three-fourths of the institutions that received federal research grants, non-research/doctoral institutions received only 15% of grant money.

That said, research and doctoral institutions do educate nearly half of all students in the country. Certainly that proportion is skewed somewhat by the much higher proportion of graduate students in those institutions, but there are still very large numbers of students seeking bachelor's degrees at such institutions. That might support Vedder's point. But if undergraduates are ignored at such schools, how are they able to educate so many of them? It may well be possible that research funds make possible otherwise elusive economies of scale in education. It is by no means certain that shifting the balance from research and graduate education to undergraduate education serves undergraduate's needs well.
Inconvenient Truth #6: Most Students Do Not Graduate on Time
This is absolutely true, and figuring out why is one of the great challenges of contemporary higher education. My issue here is that Vedder asserts that he has, in fact, figured this out: "This probably reflects the marginal preparation of many students as much as or more than financial constraints," he writes. Hopefully the book that he suggests may come from this will give us his evidence for this.

If it does, though, it will have to show that my institution's experience is exceptional. At Utah Valley University, our survey of non-returning students shows that the need to schedule school around work (17%) and the lack of financial aid (14%) were major reasons for withdrawing from school. Moving (16%) and family responsibilities (13%) were also common. Academic performance was a factor for 1.9%. This suggests that financial constraints are far more important to graduation than preparation.

(I should qualify this by noting that I'm not happy at all with our methodology in this study. Asking someone why they dropped out of school four months after their last class is about as effective as asking a kid why their room wasn't clean even though you sent her in there an hour ago. And that student didn't even contact retained students to see what there experiences are like, which is a good argument for letting the social scientists design the study rather than the statisticians. We have a better study in the field right now, and I hope to offer something a bit more sound in the near future.)
Inconvenient Truth #7: Colleges Hide (or Don’t Collect) Vital Consumer Information
We do? OK, perhaps it isn't fair to always cite my own institution; I know it better than the public might. Maybe most institutions don't provide the same level of information that mine does. But they probably do. Vedder's does. Seriously: more than half of all public 4-year institutions use the Voluntary System of Accountability's College Portrait. And every institution that received federal financial aid must file disclosures with IPEDS. All of that data is publicly available to anyone who wants it.

Placement and income is the exception; UVU is very aggressive with its alumni surveys, and we get responses from perhaps a third. Until schools can query state and federal employment records that's as good as it will get. Access to such records, of course, raises the kind of privacy concerns that make it unlikely to happen any time soon.

On this point, Vedder is at best ignorant. Given the reporting and disclosure requirements that most programs face, it is hard to believe that a full professor of any sort, and especially one working in education policy, who is ignorant of these resources is not deliberately so. Frankly, I think even that is dubiously generous. Certainly Vedder's editors or co-bloggers at the Chronicle know of these things and might want to let their colleague know before he walks into the minefield—and takes them with him.
Inconvenient Truth #8: Colleges Often Restrict Freedom of Expression
Occasionally this is the case. I've had colleagues accused of sexual harassment for arguing against a right to abortion. (In his accusers' defense, the colleague in question is such an ass that, like the Athenians of Socrates' time, I might look for an excuse to offer him the hemlock, too.) But to claim that this is generally true is absurd. Where else might Revolutionary Socialists distribute propaganda without fearing violence from "patriots" than a university campus?

Vedder, of course, objects to what he terms "political correctness." I will not mince words here: what he would call "politically incorrect" I will call what it is: racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Such speech is, as Judith Butler argued I think quite rightly, how societies maintain structures in which some are advantaged and others are not. A "nigger" doesn't just feel bad for being Black, he is made inferior for being so. It is discrimination, just as much as a "whites only" drinking fountain or an "Irish need not apply" want-ad. I will happily support institutions in their assertion that one who uses such speech is wrong.

It is also odd that Vedder points to political bias in policy-oriented disciplines rather than the supposed home of "political correctness," the English department. His own discipline is certainly the best example of a lack of intellectual diversity. How many institutional or behavioral economists are in his department? How many of his colleagues would question the justice of Pareto optimality? (For that matter, how many could?) How many of his exams would pass a student who asserted that "free" markets are, in the views of scholars from Max Weber to Jack Knight, power structures? My undergraduate economic minor was certainly a great example of a program in which "alternative points of view receive a less extensive hearing by students": even with faculty members who were open to discussing dissenting views, there was always a right answer on the tests

I'll pick up with perhaps the least defensive claim in the final installment.

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